This piece is built around an extraordinary character, an extraordinary setting—Gee’s Bend, Ala.—and tells an extraordinary history. Moehringer’s voice does the subject justice: The voice is at once eloquent and plain, like the language of his protagonist, Mary Lee. The voice echoes Mary Lee’s language; indeed it seems infused with it. And yet it is not a voice that in some sense “lowers” itself by taking on her unschooled diction. On the contrary, by taking on the color of her words, it rises to her level of dignity, big-heartedness and insight.
Moehringer structures the story in a wonderfully looping way, like the river Mary Lee lives on, with turns back and forward. Revelations of new information come at perfectly timed moments. Mary Lee has surgery, for example, but we are kept in suspense about her condition. We learn more about Mary Lee’s health farther along, in a poignant scene with her doctor. Like much of the piece, this scene is as much about Mary Lee’s internal life as it is about the more concrete details of her story and world.
We were interested in the ways that Moehringer reported Mary Lee’s beliefs, her faith, her dreams. He reports them as facts, and yet he does not lose narrative/journalistic distance. This seems to be for two reasons: First, he’s achieved a stance that is at once respectful, admiring and detached—never cute, never mawkish. Second, the stance is achieved through the way he’s taken on Mary Lee’s language. He writes, “Right after he died, Rubin visited Mary Lee, and he was mighty sore.” We understand that that’s what Mary Lee has told him. (It’s not easy to take on vernacular in this way without sounding hokey, but Moehringer walks that line with poise.)
The title of this piece refers to the coming of a ferry to Mary Lee’s isolated African American community. But it also alludes to a central theme of the piece: This is a story about a woman facing death—the death of her community, of her family members, her own death. Toward the end of the piece, Moehringer writes about a dream Mary Lee has had about crossing a river. It is powerful material, paired with the fact of the ferry’s coming. The dream and other material in the last two chapters beautifully close the piece, bringing together the theme of death with the ferry’s imminent docking on the bank.
Read “Crossing Over,” by J.R. Moehringer